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Travel review: Vendee, France

by Rufus Purdy
Travel review: Vendee, France
Image: Getty Images

With its long coastline and unequalled sardines, France’s laid-back Vendée region is the perfect place to indulge in the culinary pleasures of the sea.

For some reason, I’ve been left in charge of the tiller. The people who actually know what they’re doing are lounging at the front of our small yacht with their feet up on the sides, chatting about house prices in French. Don’t they know my experience with boats extends only as far as a bit of dinghy-paddling off Hove beach? And haven’t they noticed that, so far on this stuttering, jerky journey into the Atlantic, I seem to be taking to the water like a duck to industrial engineering?

The ocean around me, though, is mercifully empty – no other boats to crash into, no rocks to crunch against – so maybe the laissez-faire attitude of my fellow matelots is justifiable. And by the time another craft does draw near, I’ve grown confident enough to steer away smoothly and avoid tipping the crew overboard. I hear that fishing boat before I see it. Well, the squawk of the thousands of seagulls that follow it, anyway. And when the blue-and-white vessel gets closer, with the birds behind jostling in the air to get as near as they can, I’m mesmerised. I’ve seen birds follow trawlers before, but never on this scale. The patch of sky in the craft’s wake swirls with so many whites and greys that it looks as though it’s been pixelated by an over-zealous censor. One of the crew at the front of the yacht turns and looks at the spectacle. ‘Ah, the gulls,’ she says. ‘They love the sardines, no?’

Plates of fishy delight at Le Banc des Sardines
Plates of fishy delight at Le Banc des Sardines

They’re not daft, those gulls. The waters I’m doing my best to navigate are within a line-cast of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie: the sardine equivalent of what Camembert is to cheese. And it’s something of a ‘Goldilocks’ zone. Go further north and the sardines’ fat content increases in colder water, so they become flabbier and less tasty; go south into warmer waters and they become leaner and nippier – great if you’re trying to escape from a baleen whale, not so good if you’re the catch of the day. I’d experienced the delights of this catch the previous evening, at Le Banc des Sardines ( – a tiny shack between Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie train station and harbour. Seated at a pub-style table, drinking rosé from a paper cup, I enjoyed a starter of sardines mixed with garlicky cream cheese, served in a sardine tin with a basket of sliced baguette and a wooden knife. The deep, earthy flavour of the garlic combined wonderfully with the sharpness of the fish – the bread disappeared quicker than a herring down a sea lion’s throat. The next course was equally simple: grilled sardines served with potatoes and a wedge of lemon. The tender, smoky-flavoured flesh fell off the bones and the taste was of coals and the sea. Everyone around me was enjoying the same dish – Le Banc des Sardines doesn’t offer diners a choice. Sometimes simple really is best.

Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie is in France’s Vendée region, with Brittany to the north and Aquitaine to the south, and the Bay of Biscay providing its western frontier. Its famous long, wide, sandy beaches, battered by Atlantic rollers, make it popular with both families and those who love sports powered by wave and wind. I see windsurfers, kitesurfers, land-sailers and plain old surfers: in early summer on the Vendée coast, you’re never more than a few feet away from someone peeling off a wetsuit. My sporting tastes lean towards the more sedate. So, as well as the sailing trip, I head inland to La Chaboissière for some canoeing through the region’s salt marshes. It’s early morning when I arrive and take a path through scarlet pimpernel and rabbit droppings to the jetty from which I’ll be launching my boat – a Hawaiian-style canoe with a float to one side, which even a novice like myself would struggle to capsize.

The air is warm, and as thick with salt as a bag of chips. As I paddle along the channels of still water, I hear the shrill calls of oystercatchers and bitterns, and watch herons overhead. When I dawdle in the shallows, I see crabs shuffling in clumps of samphire or scrabbling up the shallow banks to disappear into fennel or wild blackberries. In Les Sables d’Olonne, a little further down the coast, I hire an e-bike and take to La Vélodyssée. This 1,300km Atlantic coastal cycling route runs from Roscoff in Brittany to Hendaye on the Spanish border. And though I concentrate on just a few kilometres, the variety of landscapes I pedal through is astonishing. On coastal tracks, I see long beaches with low, jagged cliffs and catch glimpses of the Île de Ré on the horizon. In the forest, I shoot along tracks littered with pine needles, as the smell of resin fills the air. And in the urban areas, I wind between dog-walkers and beach-bound families, before hitting cycle lanes lined with lavender. It’s enough to work up an appetite. And as Les Sables d’Olonne is a favourite with French tourists, there are lots of great places to eat. At Rosemonde (, in the seafront district of La Chaume, I order a choucroute of salmon, haddock, bream, hake, scallops and langoustines. I’ve never seen one on a French menu outside of Alsace, where it’s made with pork and sausages, but this twist on the Germanic classic proves inspired.

The saltiness and delicate flesh of the seafood complements the sharp, vinegary flavour of the pickled cabbage in an interesting way. Followed by a rich chocolate dessert served with juicy red fruits, it’s the kind of lunch you find yourself thinking about for weeks afterwards. Visiting somewhere like the Vendée – where the pace of life feels laid-back, and the days seem to consist of little more than moving from outdoorsy activities to the fresh-fish restaurants of your dreams – it’s tempting to think you might have chosen to live in the wrong place. But the grass is always greener, even for Vendeans. Standing in Les Sables d’Olonne with my local companion, I see a sign listing the settlement’s twin towns. ‘Oh, it’s twinned with Worthing,’ I note. ‘Ah,’ she says. ‘I would love to go.’ ‘What? To Worthing?’ ‘Yes, one day, if I am lucky.’ Well, there are seagulls in Worthing – but I’ve never seen them chasing boats with the same frenzied desire as they do here. The allure of the Vendée region is understood by seabirds and French holidaymakers – how long will it be before the British catch on, too?

Exploring the salt marshes of Saint- Gilles-Croix-de-Vie
Exploring the salt marshes of Saint- Gilles-Croix-de-Vie

How to book

A double room at Hôtel Côte Ouest, in Les Sables d’Olonne, costs from about £150 per night ( Sailing with Semvie Nautisme costs about £41 an hour (; canoeing with La Terrasse des Salines costs about £10 per person for 90 minutes (; e-bikes from Libert-e Trott cost about £25 a day ( EasyJet flies from London Gatwick to Nantes (

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